Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in this debate on the motion we have been requested to adopt in this place, as well as in the other place, to make it possible for the province of Newfoundland to obtain a constitutional amendment giving it the authority to reform its public education system, in which districts
are defined on the basis of school denomination, and to ensure that the educational system is organized along different lines.
As we know, the existing system, which has in fact been in place since Newfoundland entered Confederation in 1949, is protected under term 17 of the agreement setting the terms under which Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation.
In 1982, certain constitutional amendments were made-incidentally, Quebec did not support these amendments and, as a result, was excluded from the Canadian Constitution, although the Constitution applies in Quebec as well as anywhere in Canada. As provided in section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982, amendments to the Constitution may be made, where authorized by the House of Commons, the Upper House and the legislative assembly of a province when the amendments in question apply to a very specific territory, namely a province.
This provision of the Constitution Act, 1982, has been used a few times since. Section 43 was used in 1987 to recognize Pentecostal schools in Newfoundland and again, in 1993, when New Brunswick became officially bilingual, that is to say a province recognizing linguistic equality between French and English. This was all done under this section, section 43 of the Constitution Act. Finally, more recently, it was used when a constitutional amendment was needed to make it possible to build this bridge that will soon, within a year, link Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick. The provision was used three time in all to amend the Constitution.
As I said, the motion before us arises from a decision made by the Government of Newfoundland to change its denominational system. How did the Government of Newfoundland come to this decision? First, following a long internal debate as we see in other provinces, particularly Quebec, on this specific issue. This debate allowed all those concerned to express their views and lasted months and even years in Newfoundland.
It ended on September 5, 1995, when the population made the final decision, by way of a referendum. Even though only 52 per cent of eligible voters took part in the referendum, a clear majority of 54 per cent supported the proposed changes to the denominational system.
So, on October 31, Newfoundland's legislative assembly acknowledged the public's wish, as expressed in a democratic referendum, and took action to follow up on that decision. Later, the Prime Minister of Canada recognized, of course, the referendum result and agreed to put this motion on the House's agenda for the current session, so that the issue would be settled once and for all when the House and the Senate adopt it.
I want to take the 15 minutes or so that I have left to stress important aspects in this exercise, namely the recognition of the will expressed by the public, and the obligation, for a democracy, to follow up on that will. I dare say that, in the eyes of the international community, a referendum is recognized as the most democratic tool, since all the citizens of a territory are asked to express their views on a very specific issue, following a debate in which all the parties were able to present their arguments. In other words, a referendum is the ultimate poll, since everyone can express his or her view.
A referendum does not always carry the same weight for the Liberal government currently in office in Ottawa, as we saw during the last referendum held in Quebec. During the campaign, the Prime Minister of Canada repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the Quebec referendum and said he would not recognize the result, should the yes side win by a slim margin.
We know what the final verdict was: 49.6 per cent of Quebecers voted yes and 50.4 per cent voted no at the last referendum, and that outcome was not only recognized by the sovereignist government in Quebec, but was also recognized and fully respected by each and every sovereignist and resident of the province of Quebec. What it means is that Quebec remains a part of the Canadian federation, even if it was excluded from the Constitution in 1982, following well-known events, that is the unilateral patriation of the Constitution.
As I said before, the Prime Minister implied that any decision Quebecers make does not have the same significance if it goes against his wishes. I find such an argument, such a statement particularly outrageous. It means that they will respect the democratic rules if and only if the outcome of a democratic process goes along with their wishes. I think that is the kind of arguments most dictators on this planet use. No dictator is against a referendum, as long as he wins it.
These people are true democrats, as long as the dice are loaded and they are sure of the results. I find it a bit peculiar to hear these arguments, which were taken up for the most part by the individual who is responsible, at the governmental level, for ensuring that changes or negotiations are undertaken to improve, if that is at all possible, the Constitution of Canada, so that it meets the expectations of all Quebecers. That individual, the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, in a comment about the motion now before the House, stated that referenda do not all have the same significance.
I would like to quote-and I think this is an exact quote-a report in Tuesday May 28's Le Devoir in reaction to the words of a sovereignist spokesperson who had said: ``The Newfoundlanders spoke clearly. A majority of Newfoundlanders have demanded that the Constitution be amended in response to their aspirations for the organization of their school system''.
We sovereignists say, and rightly so I believe, that if this was good enough for a decision made in Newfoundland, and was the case when Newfoundland entered Confederation as well, it is certainly so for Quebecers when they want to determine their future. It seems to me that the same principle applies in both cases. There cannot be one democratic principle for Newfoundland, and another for Quebec. That is completely unacceptable.
But not for the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. The Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs has been quoted as saying during a media scrum: "The principle is that, the more serious a decision and the more it impacts upon future generations, the more strictly the rules of democracy must be applied".
My understanding of this statement as I read it is that the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs is saying that the Newfoundlanders' decision was on a mere detail. Yet remodelling the denominational school system seems to me to impact on future generations since we are speaking of today's children and our children's children. It would seem to mean that he considers modifying the school system in a province, Newfoundland in this case, a mere detail.
So some rules of democracy can be a bit looser. Can we consider the debate of Newfoundlanders, which lasted months, years, to be a waste of time, according to the evaluation of the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs? I think this is rather offensive. It treats with disdain people who reached a decision through democratic process.
The minister went on to say, in the same article, in the same statement: "There is a world of difference between modernizing an education system and dismantling a country". I think the basis of this discussion reveals the importance of such action. I do not think we can tell Newfoundlanders that the whole issue of their debate was not as important as the potential debate in Quebec over its constitutional future.
I would like to give a few examples and I would like to hear the opinion of the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs on the Maastricht treaty, a highly complex treaty ratified by all the countries in the European Community.
The people in these countries had to vote on this treaty, which had-still has and will continue have for generations to come-major consequences on their lives, because it significantly changed the way their countries worked.
All the countries or almost-not all, but a good majority-held a referendum. I will give you two examples. In Sweden, 52 per cent of the population supported Sweden's entry into the European common market. In France, 50.9 per cent voted in favour of a significant change, a major change.
The Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs might think otherwise, but when one refers to the debates which took place in those countries on the Maastricht treaty, one realizes that the decision to be taken had far reaching consequences.
In the case of Sweden and France, where the population was nearly equally divided, opponents did not ask that those who did not support the Maastricht treaty be excluded from it. On the contrary, in these countries, it is understood that the democratic rule is 50 per cent plus 1.
I will give as a last example the recent elections in Israel where, for all intents and purposes, the prime minister was elected by referendum since there was a vote by universal suffrage; the whole population was called to choose the prime minister. In this particular case, I would like you to remember this, 50.4 per cent of the Israeli population voted in favour of a change of prime minister against 49.6 per cent, which is the same results as in Quebec, last October.
If one follows international events and knows what consequences this election might have in Israel, one might think that there is food for thought for the voters, especially in view of the very important consequences of their vote on their future. And, in spite of it all, the outgoing prime minister, Mr. Peres, accepted the results as the good democrat he is, conceded defeat and agreed to recognize the new prime minister.
I say all this to show that you cannot have double standards, even if that is what the Liberal government, and especially the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, have in mind. In a democracy, you cannot have double standards. The rule of democracy is 50 per cent plus 1 for any referendum. On two separate occasions, Quebecers have respected the results of decisions which were contrary to the hopes of sovereignists.
We cannot discredit a decision or discount its importance when it results from a democratic process. That is why I will support Motion No. 5 concerning Newfoundland, which is before us today.
I hope our colleagues, from the Liberal Party in particular, will show some consistency. When Quebecers vote in favour of Quebec's sovereignty, whatever the result might be, if it represents a democratic decision, I hope they will abide by it.